It’s full steam ahead for the lobster rolls craze. Seafood shacks are dropping anchor all across the country, some with waterfront views and others with views of the mall food court. Lobster roll trucks are rolling in cities like Cape May, Maine, Chicago, Illinois, Austin, Texas, and even Park City, Utah. As of this writing, there are five different lobster truck companies “clawing” it out in California alone.
Everyone is getting in on the action; from the second largest fast food restaurant, McDonald’s,(Subway is the largest, also shelling out crustacean sandwiches);to the famed French restaurant, Balthazar, located in the swanky SoHo section of Manhattan. Balthazar gets 10 points right off the top for their house-baked bread.
Let’s discuss what makes the best lobster roll and how to spot a lousy, no-good roll! A lobster roll consists of fresh lobster meat, bread, and a simple dressing. ‘Simple’ will be the recurring theme to assembling a great lobster roll on any coast. Are you ‘willingly’ eating bad lobster rolls? Here are 3 ways to find out.
1. Mediocre Lobster Meat
The “Maine” ingredient of a great lobster roll is naturally the lobster meat. Unfortunately, this is not obvious to many restaurateurs who have jumped on the lobster roll bandwagon. First, real good lobster meat is not cheap; so corners are often cut to increase margins and boost profits.
Learn how to spot an “imposter lobster” roll from a great one. Is it lobster meat or something else? In December of 2015, eight sushi restaurants in San Diego were caught “red-handed” for seafood fraud. They served “lobster” rolls that didn’t have any lobster in them. Instead of lobster, customers were served various types of less expensive seafood like crawfish or Pollock. In another bait and switch, Nathan’s in Coney Island substituted whiting–an inexpensive fish–for lobster meat.
Plus, how do you know you are getting real Maine lobster, Homarus americanus; or is it another species of the lobster-like slipper, langoustine or rock lobster (you know, the ones that don’t have claws.)? Rock lobster, spiny lobster and crawfish all derive from species of the Palinuridae family.
Is it Real, Fresh Lobster?
So, what constitutes “fresh” Maine lobster meat? The quality of the lobster meat starts with the quality of the lobster itself. Fresh lobster means: fresh caught live lobsters. Lobsters should be cooked live, iced to prevent overcooking; and the meat picked right on the spot.
This does not mean cooking diseased, dead or dying lobsters—known in the industry as sleepers. Depending on the time of year, the meat may be from soft-shell lobsters. This meat will be a little more watery, soft and less firm than meat from a hard shell lobster.
A freshly cooked lobster will have its tail curl and the meat will be somewhat springy and firm; no mushy dried or jelly texture. Bad meat will give off an ammonia odor. Live lobster should be cooked properly, never overcooked or you’ll end up with rubbery and tough meat. The meat should be chilled and used right away or at least within a day or so. With advanced processing technologies, you can now get premium frozen lobster meat that can be far superior to cooked meat that has been stored a day or two too long. And of course, there is also poorly processed lobster meat on the market.
Lastly, there is different meat from the different parts of the lobster. For example, claw and knuckle meat (known in the trade as CK meat), is the most widely used for rolls. You’ll find each part of the meat will have a different flavor profile and texture. We like big chunks of claw and knuckle meat and, if you’re lucky, you may find the more expensive and biggest piece of meat—the tail added. Don’t overlook the knuckle meat as it offers sweet and tender morsels.
Some rolls, on the other hand, are made with cheap alternatives like a mix of leg or broken meat. Some add body meat to further bring down the cost. Sadly, some lobster rolls are made with diced up or shredded lobster meat. This may pass for a lobster salad, but not for a good roll.
Uncut lobster meat also tastes the best and makes for a better, more authentic presentation. In short, the meat makes the lobster roll!
2. Lobster Roll Dressing
Pro Tip: Make sure you can visibly see lobster meat in the roll, like a whole claw or two, or even a big piece of tail meat. Lightly dressed rolls are the best.
We are proponents of simple, light dressings such as a glaze of mayo or a drizzle of hot butter. These are what you call traditional lobster rolls: cold Maine-style with mayo and Connecticut-style hot buttered. Drawn butter and mayo may also be served on the side. Gourmet (July, 2009) magazine featured a recipe for no-mayo lobster rolls with lemon vinaigrette dressing. The rationale is that the simple dressing will not mask the sweet, briny flavor or bright red color of the lobster meat.
Unconventional ingredients can put an exciting twist on the lobster roll but unwittingly, they can disguise the true, sweet ocean flavor of the meat (unless the meat sucks to begin with). As the old adage goes, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig”. The same can be said for the lobster roll. You can put a fancy dressing on a lousy roll, however, it’s still a lousy lobster roll. If the meat is really good, the sandwich will stand on its own.
There are plenty of chefs who attempt to put a “gourmet” spin on the roll. Even seasoned mayo is fine, but some go overboard with rolls tossed in lemon-chili, curry, Kewpie (Japanese style with MSG), chipotle, wasabi, and even Tabasco mayo. And there is no saving a soggy roll drowning in too much mayo!
You will also find rolls dressed in aioli sauce. What is aioli? It’s like mayo although it is garlic-based and made with olive oil, not vegetable oil. It’s good stuff if it’s made simple. Love that lemon aioli!
For a slightly sweeter roll, whip in the salad spread Miracle Whip in place of your standard mayo. Tarragon, celery salt, fresh chives, or chopped celery can be tasty compliments to a lobster roll as well.
Hot dogs are not the only comfort food served with toppings. Have you tried the California version of the lobster roll served with avocado, white cabbage, pico de gallo, and Sriracha? Along with avocado, you’ll find rolls topped with bacon, pickled mustard seeds, cucumbers, caramelized onions, tomatoes, hot giardiniera (Italian relish), Old Bay seasoning, black truffle, panko crumbs, and crushed potato chips (might give this a try). Some add a bed of lettuce or diced celery blended in the mayo for a little-added crunch. A squeeze of fresh lemon on the roll is always sublime.
3. Best Bread for a Lobster Roll
Lobster rolls are traditionally served on a roll—a top-split buttery grilled roll. This East Coast fast-food sandwich was designed to be portable. It is the Uber to your lobster meat. A typical soft New England hot dog roll features straight-up, white sides for coating in butter and for grilling. Fresh-off-the griddle buttered rolls make a huge difference. The only prerequisite for the bread is that there is not too much of it and it is light and fresh. Again, the star of the sandwich is the meat. You always want a generous portion of freshly cooked meat, not heavy bread.
Country Kitchen is a popular store-bought split-top bun. Another iconic roll is made by Connecticut-based Pepperidge Farms, but its sides have more of a golden crust. Locally baked bread or house-baked is always a plus. Some fun alternative bread choices include: the sub roll, hoagie roll, brioche bun, Kaiser bun, croissant, baguette, challah bun, Martin’s potato bun, Pain au Lait (it’s a small, slightly sweet, buttery bun enriched with milk), and King’s Hawaiian hot dog buns.
In Kennebunkport, Maine, there’s one popular spot that serves up lobster on a hamburger bun with butter or mayonnaise served on the side. It works well. When top-loading hotdog buns are not the bread, is it still a lobster roll? This is up to debate, but who doesn’t love a great lobster sandwich!
The Sides: What to Serve with Lobster Rolls
Though not a required, it is comforting to receive good sides with your roll. Good comfort food deserves a good comfort side. As mentioned above, it’s best to keep the “sides” out of the roll itself! The usual sidekicks are a lemon wedge, the standard pickle, coleslaw (also known as slaw), or a bag of potato chips. If you’re lucky, you may receive a fresh batch of lightly battered onion rings, hand-cut French fries, or even house-made potato chips (you can’t lose with Kettle chips) with your roll! For the sweet tooth, enjoy Maine’s official treat—the whoopie pie, chocolate cakes filled with creamy vanilla filling.
Finally a great lobster roll requires a fork. Why? You’ll need one for the big chunks of lobster meat falling out of the bun!
Retro, all-natural sodas have made a comeback. You may find an assortment of flavors at a local seafood joint available to wash down a roll or two. Or, how about freshly squeezed lemonade? And there’s always chilled chardonnay or an ice cold, local craft beer to accompany your lobster roll feast.
It’s okay to embrace creativity, but always remember to know the source, keep it fresh and simple. We’ve got a few suggestions for making the ultimate lobster rolls at home. Take a gander!
If you’re hunting down the best lobster rolls in New England, check our review of the top seafood shacks. Can’t make the road trip? Test the waters at LobsterAnywhere; we’ll ship a lobster roll kit to just about anywhere in the USA.